Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Shekang of the Ibaloys: an Ornamental Mouthpiece Made of Either Gold or Copper

Usually, what strikes me the most when looking at old photos of Igorots, especially those of women, is their penchant for decoratives and ornamentals. Their feet and hands are often adorned with bangles. Colorful strings of beads cascade down their chests as necklaces. More beads loop around their heads and hair. Heavy gold earrings dangle from their already strained ears. And many of them go so far as to have their skins tattooed. I thought this was where the ancient Igorot woman's love for decoration ended. I was wrong.

Today, I learned that Ibaloy women of old also decorated their mouth/teeth with mouthpieces made of either gold or copper. This mouthpiece is called a "shekang". I've read a few sources that refer to it as "chakang". So yes, centuries before rappers and celebrities popularized mouth grills, our Igorot ancestors had been sporting their own version of a mouth bling.

The design of the "shekang" is pretty rudimentary. A thin strip of gold or copper is hammered into shape so that it can fit over the teeth. The finished product would cover the whole frontal aspect of the teeth. So when a wearer of a "shekang" smiles, what you see is a mouth glittering in either gold or copper. The "shekang" is attached to the teeth using any of two methods. One, both ends of the strip are inserted into the gaps between two teeth. Two, pegs are made in the two ends of the strip then inserted into holes in the teeth. This means that in this second method, holes need to be bored in the teeth. This is where the pegs of the "shekang" are inserted to keep the mouthpiece in place. Sometimes, designs and patterns were etched into the metal.

It's believed that the "shekang" was casually worn by wealthy Ibaloy women. These are women from the "baknang" families. This makes sense because a person has to be wealthy to be able to afford precious metals like gold and copper. However, according to the Museo Kordilyera of the University of the Philippines Baguio, by the 20th century, the use of the mouthpiece "seems to have been limited to festive occasions".

The wearing of the "shekang" by the Ibaloys had been observed as early as the 18th century. A visiting Spanish missionary named Francisco Antolin had observed the Igorots and had written a study about them which he titled "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789". Antolin arrived in the Philippines in 1769. He spent a considerable amount of time among the Igorots. In his study "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789", Antolin wrote that in Kabayan, "leading women would place a plate of gold over their teeth and remove it to eat". [People interested in reading Antolin's accounts can get a copy of his study online. Obviously, Antolin wrote it in Spanish. But it was translated into English in 1970 by no other than William Henry Scott. Just search for "Notices of the Pagan Igorots in 1789".]

Also, a photograph of an Ibaloy woman wearing a "shekang" was taken by Dean C. Worcester, an American who served as the Philippine Secretary of the Interior from 1901 to 1913. The photo is of an Ibaloy family in Atok, Benguet. The woman in the photo was wearing a "shekang".

As to the purpose of the "shekang", it seems like the consensus among historians and scholars is that it's purely for decorative/ornamental purposes and as a status symbol/marker given that it's believed to be exclusively worn by women from wealthy families.

Image source: Emil Maranon III/Facebook